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Does the Flood Story in Gilgamesh Undermine the Bible?

Every once in a while you will still hear about a flood story in the Epic of Gilgamesh which supposedly undermines the Bible. For those unaware, The Epic of Gilgamesh is an old Sumerian story84(later adopted into Babylonian tradition about this man named Gilgamesh, the king of Uruk, who goes on a quest to find immortality. This Epic predates the flood narrative in Genesis and it includes a flood narrative of its own. The flood narrative is remarkably similar to the Bible’s, and so it has been made out as an argument that the Bible stole this story from the Babylonian tale. The similarities are strikingly similar. You have a divine decision to destroy mankind,85Gen. 6:-7, Gilgamesh 14-19 a warning to an individual,86Gen. 6:13, Gilgamesh 20-23 with a command to build an ark.87Gen. 6:14, Gilgamesh 24-32 Then there’s the actual flood,88Gen. 7:17-24, Gilgamesh 96-138 the ark gets grounded on a mountain,89Gen. 8:4, Gilgamesh 140-144 and a sacrifice is made.90Gen. 8:20, Gilgamesh 155-158

Since the Epic of Gilgamesh roughly dates at least a couple hundred years older than Genesis, does this mean that Genesis copied the flood narrative from these Babylonian writings?

That would be a very odd thing indeed if the Bible is supposed to be revelation from God.

This is often presented as shocking information. Indeed, it can be shocking for Christians who have never studied ancient Near Eastern culture. But any serious scholar of the book of Genesis would be well aware of Gilgamesh’s flood story, as well as the Atrahasis epic, Enuma Elish, and other writings of the ancient Near East. From what I’ve seen, the striking similarities of flood accounts in Gilgamesh does not trouble most Christian scholars. This is true for several reasons.

First,

the problem with these critiques is that you don’t have just two options to choose from (either A copied B or B copied A). According to Kenneth Matthews, “A third and more profitable option is that the diverse perspectives arise from an antecedent tradition… not of a common text or an original story or a cultural continuum, but rather a common universal memory.”91K. A. Mathews, Genesis 1-11:26, vol. 1A, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1996), 87. If the flood really happened, then people would know about it. So, just because the Bible codifies that knowledge in written form later than other sources doesn’t mean that the information was learned by those previous sources.

Second,

it has been argued with manuscript evidence that the flood story in Gilgamesh is a story which was added after Gilgamesh was originally written. From the Lexham Bible Dictionary:

The most-consulted version of the Epic of Gilgamesh is a combination of the Old Babylonian version (OB), written in Akkadian during the second millennium BC, and the Neo-Assyrian version (NA), composed in the first millennium BC. The OB and NA share themes and a core narrative arc, making them the centerpiece for constructing the epic. It is unknown when, by whom, and for what purpose the two major sources were united (Dalley, Myths from Mesopotamia, 45–47).

A significant difference between the OB and NA is the lack of a flood narrative in the OB version (Tigay, Evolution of the Gilgamesh Epic, 214–70). The OB may have concluded after Gilgamesh’s initial trial and subsequent failure at immortality. The NA, however, includes Utnapishtim’s flood experiences alongside Gilgamesh’s lack of success. Thus, the story of Utnapishtim and the flood (Tablet XI) may be a later addition to the Epic of Gilgamesh.92Jason C. Kuo and Jonathan D. Redding, “Gilgamesh, Epic of,” ed. John D. Barry et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).

Third,

the flood story is incidental to the story of Gilgamesh’s quest for immortality. But in Genesis, the flood story is a crucial part of the theological narrative. The lack of contextual purpose in Gilgamesh’s flood story makes it seem much more like the author of Gilgamesh was looking for an opportunity to insert the story, not write up an original one.